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The generation game
November 9, 2012 6:58 AM   Subscribe

"the most embarrassing verse in the Bible" - C.S. Lewis "this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" - 2000 years of arguments over the central verse in all prophecy. The meaning of Christianity, and hence much of our culture, hangs on the disputed meaning of a single word, "genea" or "generation."

There is something beautiful about scholarship for its own sake: here is a whole page on a single verse of the Bible. It brings together opposing views from the past 2000 years, dissecting and re-dissecting a single sentence, century after century.

The site is preterist (i.e. the author believes that many of the "end times" prophecies refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70) but doesn't lay it on thick. If you're a Christian, then maybe it's a new approach. If you're an atheist then it's a good reminder that not all Christians are the same, and some of them think quite deeply.

And if you don't really care either way, just dive into a rich and very deep pool of history. Like a conversation between Calvin, Wesley, Origen, and a hundred other largely forgotten names who helped form our civilization. It's like opposing sides are in a private room, admitting quietly that sometimes things are not as clear cut as they would like.


PS for non-Brits, "The Generation Game" is a pun - the name of a game show that dominated the 1970s TV schedules, hosted by Bruce Forsyth.

Wild tangent: you could build a pretty good eschatology around Forsyth. The guy is apparently immortal: you may know him from Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and he dominated British prime time TV in the 1950s... and still does in 2012. As Matthew 24 foretells, he's seen from the sky, by all people. Bruce and Forsyth are both Scottish names: could he be The Highlander? "Forsyth" comes from "Sythin," which is Gaelic signifies peace. Surely he couldn't be...?
posted by EnterTheStory (103 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
To put Lewis's take on it in its full context:
It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side. That they stood thus in the mouth of Jesus himself, and were not merely placed thus by the reporter, we surely need not doubt. Unless the reporter were perfectly honest he would never have recorded the confession of ignorance at all; he could have had no motive for doing so except a desire to tell the whole truth. And unless later copyists were equally honest they would never have preserved the (apparently) mistaken prediction about “this generation” after the passage of time had shown the (apparent) mistake. This passage (Mark 13:30-32) and the cry “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) together make up the strongest proof that the New Testament is historically reliable. The evangelists have the first great characteristic of honest witnesses: they mention facts which are, at first sight, damaging to their main contention.
Circular reasoning, of course - but there you have it.
posted by Egg Shen at 7:04 AM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


screw eschatology. there's too damn much suffering to be alleviated, too damn many needs to be met, far too much kingdom to be brought in, to waste a single thought on stupid crap which is none of my business anyway.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 7:13 AM on November 9, 2012 [30 favorites]


You know quonsar, for once we agree wholeheartedly.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:18 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think there's some rather more embarrassing verses in the Bible. How about Genesis 19:34 where Lot's daughters are getting him drunk and screwing him:

And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.
posted by iotic at 7:19 AM on November 9, 2012 [9 favorites]


This passage (Mark 13:30-32) and the cry “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) together make up the strongest proof that the New Testament is historically reliable.

Ironclad.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:22 AM on November 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


The Bible holds up a mirror to humanity, and sometimes, like Lot's daughters, we certainly do not like what we see.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:22 AM on November 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


C.S. Lewis is the master of the false di(/tri)chotomy. Most famous is his absurd Lord, Liar, Lunatic trilemma, but it's on full display here as well.

Unless the reporter were perfectly honest he would never have recorded the confession of ignorance at all; he could have had no motive for doing so except a desire to tell the whole truth.

Really? That's the only possible explanation of this?

If I were a Christian, I'd be embarrassed that this guy is considered an intellectual. In fact, when I was a religious Jew, I read some Lewis on the recommendation of a Jewish friend and was embarrassed for him that he found it compelling.

I much prefer the mystics to those religious people who purport to be logical.
posted by callmejay at 7:22 AM on November 9, 2012 [15 favorites]


I much prefer the mystics to those religious people who purport to be logical.

Me too.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:25 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Me three.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 7:26 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I much prefer the mystics to those religious people who purport to be logical."

I much prefer the rational, religious persons to either.
posted by oddman at 7:28 AM on November 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Iotic: Why is that embarrassing? Or rather, why is that particular verse more embarrassing than any of the other long list of stories harping over and over on the theme of Hebrew depravity and inability to live according to Gods plan? That is kind of the whole point, don't you think? You could almost find a verse as embarrassing as that by flipping a bible open at random.
posted by brenton at 7:28 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


C.S. Lewis is the master of the false di(/tri)chotomy

It's a pattern that shows up in his fiction as well, especially the poorly-masked allegories in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

If I were a Christian, I'd be embarrassed that this guy is considered an intellectual.

Yes. Mere Christianity was an earnest read, but not exactly intellectually rigorous. Haven't read his other stuff.

I much prefer the mystics to those religious people who purport to be logical.

If by "logical" you mean someone who challenges and picks apart their own religious beliefs, then I disagree. If you mean someone that tries to adjust reality to fit their personal worldview, then we definitely agree.

Honestly, I really can't stand mystics and gurus and the like. They tend to attract cult followers - folks who aren't particularly interested in objective thinking, but instead being blindly led.
posted by zarq at 7:37 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


sometimes, like Lot's daughters, we certainly do not like what we see

Um, I thought Lot's daughters were relatively satisfied with their children. Wasn't it Lot's wife who didn't like what she saw? (Not that this actually affects the sentiment you express; I've just never heard it suggested that Lot's daughters were particularly ashamed or, for that matter, shamed.)
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:38 AM on November 9, 2012


I think you exaggerate a little about Bruce Forsyth's dominance. I'm not a narrow-minded reductionist on these matters but if he starts speaking to you in dreams I would definitely consider seeking appropriate therapy.
posted by Segundus at 7:38 AM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm gonna be a...prostitute!
posted by ostranenie at 7:38 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


"screw eschatology..."

Well, yeah, but then you pass up a chance to explore one of the darker mysteries of being human. FTM, its historicity alone is pretty fascinating.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 8:00 AM on November 9, 2012


Isn't over-reliance on the criterion of embarassment kind of a problem?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:03 AM on November 9, 2012


Lot's wife was a pillar of salt by that point.
posted by duvatney at 8:03 AM on November 9, 2012


Sleeping with your daughters is pretty gross no matter what your wife's sodium levels are.
posted by echo target at 8:05 AM on November 9, 2012 [67 favorites]


Honestly, I really can't stand mystics and gurus and the like. They tend to attract cult followers - folks who aren't particularly interested in objective thinking, but instead being blindly led.

"Mystic" doesn't necessarily mean a guru seated on a pillow in front of a class of suburbanites in LA.

Actually, eastern Christianity has preserved its mysticism. And in general, Eastern Christian theology tends to be apophatic while the west is cataphatic. For example, in those western churches that accept the Real Presence in the Eucharist, there are varying rational explanations of transubstantiation or consubstantiation that purport to explain exactly how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood. In the eastern Church, on the other hand, we simply say that the bread and wine change and we don't know how.

This is also seen in the soteriology of the east and west. Western soteriology can, grossly put, be described as getting insurance so that God isn't pissT at you, while Eastern soteriology is about achieving mystic union with God through theosis. That is how Christian monasticism came to be.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:09 AM on November 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


@ echo- coffee on my monitor now- :D
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 8:10 AM on November 9, 2012


callmejay: I much prefer the mystics to those religious people who purport to be logical.

I like a good mystic, don't get me wrong, and I can't stand irrigorous religious logisticians, but it's pretty amazing to read a good theologian in full flight. I'm atheist as all fuck, mind you. For instance, I subscribe to hardly any of the axioms that Friedrich Schleiermacher starts from, but he's a fascinating read.

Also, as with most things, there's a Cracked list about embarrassing Bible verses, though they call them "most badass" instead of "most embarrassing."
posted by Kattullus at 8:14 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think there's some rather more embarrassing verses in the Bible. How about Genesis 19:34 where Lot's daughters are getting him drunk and screwing him:

And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.

posted by iotic at 10:19 AM on November 9


You know, I'd never understood why Lot's daughters did this. Then years ago I read The Harlot By The Side of the Road, a really engaging book by Jonathan Kirsch that examines some of the more shocking tales of Old Testament within their social context.

He suggested because of the remoteness of Sodom and Gomorrah's (supposed) locations, because the destruction of the cities was so complete and total ("...he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace"), and because the angel that saved them gave absolutely no indication of how widespread that destruction would be, that Lot's daughters believed themselves and their father to be the last people alive on the whole planet. And if their species was going to have any hope of surviving, they were going to have to make some difficult, downright ugly choices.

I had already read my share of post-apocalyptic sci-fi by the time I picked up this book, so when Kirsch posited this theory, it made perfect sense to me. One of the most common themes in post-apoc lit is taboos being broken so that the human race continues.

Kirch's theory made me sympathetic to Lot's daughters. In the space of a day, they'd been offered up for rape, warned to get out of town fast, fled what was surely a horrific scene of death and destruction, lost their fiances and their mother to the destruction, and then abandoned by the angels with no explanations or instructions. There's no mention of people in Zoar (where Lot and his daughters initially fled to), so the presumption has usually been that the Zoarites had fled the destruction as well.

So there's Lot's daughters, shell-shocked and ekeing out a living in mountains next to a blasted plain with no idea what God expects of them. In their society, their value as women depended totally on the men in their lives: their father, and then their husbands, and eventually their sons. They'd always been raised to be moms and bear children. And from what they could tell, the human race was gone, except for their father and them.

I see why they reached the conclusions they reached.

It's still a horrible, disturbing story. But I wouldn't call it embarrassing, any more than I'd call the cannibalism of the 1972 Andes flight disaster embarrassing. I call it the desperate choice of desperate people, who genuinely thought they were staring extinction in the face.

And that's the lesson of the story, my mom said when she read the book and we talked about it later. That sometimes you have to make ugly, ugly choices, based on bad information, and then live with yourself afterwards. You have to find a way to make peace with your decisions made in that moment. And maybe with God's help, you can.

So...I guess I like the story. Given the circumstances, Lot's daughters were pretty brave.
posted by magstheaxe at 8:18 AM on November 9, 2012 [77 favorites]


it's pretty amazing to read a good theologian in full flight.

In much the same way that's it's amazing to watch a person with a very steady hand build a cathedral of cards balanced on a rotten matchstick.
posted by Aquaman at 8:20 AM on November 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


For example, in those western churches that accept the Real Presence in the Eucharist, there are varying rational explanations of transubstantiation or consubstantiation that purport to explain exactly how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood. In the eastern Church, on the other hand, we simply say that the bread and wine change and we don't know how.

This feels like a joke from a Stanislaw Lem book.
posted by fleacircus at 8:24 AM on November 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


Bruce Forsyth is an interesting one, since he has never been any good at anything ever.

His fabled entrance was his performances on Sunday Night At The London Palladium fifty years ago, yet he was awful.

His Generation Game run was iconic, yet when he left it was taken over by Larry Grayson, Grayson was much much better than him.

Now he in situ at Strictly and he is just terrible. In fact that is his act. His delivery is always the same : he'll tell a bad joke, pause for a moment to note the non-laugh-filled reaction, say "Please yourselves" and then sneer. The joke appears to be "I'm awful. What am I doing here ?"
To quote the Pet Shop Boys, he really has made a little go a very long way.

Even his famous neighbour had the semblance of good taste to drop dead eventually.

It makes me think that talent-vacuums Ant & Dec will still be grinning through the set at their own non-punchlines when they place the pennies on my eyes.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 8:33 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I will point out that some religious groups do not have a problem with either temporal anomalies within their theological framework or the more outre discoveries of physics.

As for embarrassing bible verses, I find Psalm 137:9 "Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" to be pretty bad. Yeah, I get the sentiment, but it's not really the Bible's finest hour.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:35 AM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't really see why the verse is so problematic. An obvious consideration is the translation, but also the source if it's the vulgate or an early greek text (greek and latin are very different, and are spoken, we believe, very differently, and I have absolutely no knowledge of aramaic which is presumably what Jesus was speaking). Greek, at least, and probably Latin, went through fairly dramatic changes over its popular use then movement into more academic sources and eventual extinction as a fluency.

I do like however love much of the mythology which such verses give rise to, the wandering Jew is a related story and one of my favorites.
posted by Shit Parade at 8:36 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a pattern that shows up in his fiction as well, especially the poorly-masked allegories in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

And yet, despite this, I swear I remember reading somewhere that Lewis claimed the book was not intended as a Christian allegory. It's mere coincidence.
posted by asnider at 8:37 AM on November 9, 2012


Umm.

Yeah, preterism is a thing. Not a terribly common thing, but a thing. Many traditions believe that part of what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 24 refers specifically to the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans in AD 70.

Note that the language changes in verse 36. In the first part of the chapter he seems to be talking about a period of time which is pretty unpleasant for all involved. Up until then, Jesus talks about "those days" (cf. v. 19, 22, 29). The passage up until then reads as if Jesus were saying, "Look, a lot of bad stuff is going to happen, and it's going to happen soon." The immediate context is a discussion about the temple, so interpreting this part of the passage as being about the temple makes a certain amount of sense.

But in verse 36, he seems to change tack: "But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only." Jesus then seems to describe a fairly extended period of normal activity. As if he were saying "Okay, so much for the Temple. But about my return? All I can say is that you're going to go about your business for a while, and then it's going to be over."

And that's basically what mainstream Christianity--Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox--has believed for most of the past 2,000 years. Protestantism has sort of shot off in weird, dispensationalist and premillennial directions in the last century and a half (previously), but that's about the sum of it.
posted by valkyryn at 8:38 AM on November 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


magstheaxe, I believe Amy Jill Levine described the Noah-incest story as an etiological one based on the theory that /those guys/ are a bunch of inbreds.

YMMV, I'm not familiar enough with the offspring to recall just who that explanation was denigrating and who would be telling the story.
posted by birdheist at 8:43 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Aquaman: In much the same way that's it's amazing to watch a person with a very steady hand build a cathedral of cards balanced on a rotten matchstick.

Absolutely, that's part of the beauty. It's sort of like how if Ancient Greece were around today we'd nuke them from orbit because ewwwwww but that doesn't make Aristotle, Plato, Aristophanes, Euripides etc. any less amazing.
posted by Kattullus at 8:47 AM on November 9, 2012


This verse is one I've just about lost my father to. He's latched onto the idea that the fig tree represents Israel and "this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" refers to the refounding of Israel. I think he's finally given up on predicting an exact time for the end after having to define and redefine how long a biblical generation is, but he's still convinced that the world is ending before the last person who was alive for the refounding of Israel dies.

I've argued and argued, usually following valkyryn's points, but to no avail. There are preachers out there that are ruining lives and families.
posted by charred husk at 9:02 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Trying to make sense of the bible is like looking for faces in the wallpaper.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:02 AM on November 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


OK, my exmple of Lot and his daughters may not have been the best one for various reasons - though I've enjoyed the responses above. My point was really just that there's much in the Bible that is contradictory, immoral and downright absurd. And yes, often embarrassing. I'm sure one could find a better example, perhaps using this site.
posted by iotic at 9:08 AM on November 9, 2012


I don't see why that passage is the most embarrassing, either. To me, the most embarrassing passages in the Bible would be the ones that not only accept, but demand, bigotry and hatred, promoting them as righteous, like these:

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

Thou shalt not kill seems pretty clear, right? But now we have an exception: except when, you know, you don't like some uppity woman. Then you can kill her; just call her a witch and have done with her! Bam.

If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

Whoa. Here we are with the killing people if we don't like them loophole, again. Yes, I know the justification for this passage is that there were famines and draughts and plagues and people were supposed to be out there repopulating the Earth and whatnot. So people just having sex for the fun of it is now considered a Bad Thing.

But we extrapolate from that to hey, let's kill all the homosexuals?! Really? Isn't that a bit extreme? There's even a little pep talk at the end about how we don't even have to feel bad about it because it's their fault they're getting butchered. Where is the sense in that? Don't we end up with less people on the Earth either way?

It's just deplorable that the Bible is considered "The Good Book" when there's so much bitter, angry hatefulness between the covers.

Jesus seems like a nice enough guy, but his dad was kind of a dick, you know?
posted by misha at 9:09 AM on November 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


misha:
"To me, the most embarrassing passages in the Bible would be the ones that not only accept, but demand, bigotry and hatred, promoting them as righteous, like these:"
The embarrassment he's talking about is about being embarrassed on your own terms. When they wrote with bigotry and hatred, that was the message they were intending to send at the time. You may think they would be embarrassed now, but they're dead so that's not happening. Rather, the embarrassment comes from building up this perfect figure of Jesus and then having him outright say, "I dunno lol."
posted by charred husk at 9:17 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


That page is a sideshow for extreme views. Step right up and watch us foam about Armageddon.

Wycliffe's middle of the road view was that the Jewish nation (whatever that is) will not be exterminated. That suffices for all -- except for teenagers thrilled to find a Bible contradiction, and the many brands of left-behinders.
posted by surplus at 9:19 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Personally, I find the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree to be particularly embarrassing. Mr Christ comes off as nothing less than a maniacal narcissist. It's like a spoiled movie star yelling, "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM," at a fruit tree that happens to be out of season. He then kills the tree with his magical powers, because if he can't have figs, nobody can.

What a dick.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:23 AM on November 9, 2012 [21 favorites]


So...I guess I like the story. Given the circumstances, Lot's daughters were pretty brave.

Agreed. But the daughter's conduct isn't why the story's embarrassing. It's embarrassing because "In the space of a day, they'd been offered up for rape, warned to get out of town fast, fled what was surely a horrific scene of death and destruction, lost their fiances and their mother to the destruction, and then abandoned by the angels with no explanations or instructions."
posted by facetious at 9:25 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


So the problem comes from assuming that the verse has to be true and to make sense? I think I see a solution.
posted by thelonius at 9:28 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've spent some time around Jesuits and people who studied in the Jesuit tradition, and one thing that it made me appreciate as an atheist -- and that I think a lot of other atheists could benefit from -- is realizing that there are literally zero arguments that you can casually come up with, which somebody hasn't already tried, and which the Christian intellectual tradition hasn't found some way to either route around, shrug off, or incorporate in some non-destructive way.

Which isn't to say that there isn't a fair amount of circular reasoning involved, or that at the end of the day you're not going to just get down to different premises and have to agree to disagree, but it's comforting to realize that at least people have thought and are thinking about this stuff.

However, this does not include the, um, less theologically rigorous traditions which tend to steal the spotlight (at least in the US), and arguing with them is like trying to play chess with someone who keeps trying to shove the pieces up their nose. But however obnoxious I find them as an atheist, I've realized that it's nothing like the annoyance that must be felt by members of traditions that have spent literally thousands of years (hundreds in an organized, systematic fashion) thinking about this stuff, only to watch a bunch of loudmouths ignore it and make the sort of theological errors on national TV that I assume would get you sniggered at in the first week of seminary. That has really got to suck.

Anyway, if you really want to see the pinnacle of card-houses-on-matchsticks, the deepest rabbit hole is probably Canon Law. It makes the most hoary parts of the US, or even the entire common law, tradition look positively bright and shiny.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:29 AM on November 9, 2012 [26 favorites]


Trying to make sense of the bible is like looking for faces in the wallpaper.

Perhaps the same could be said of all religions.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:34 AM on November 9, 2012


Perhaps the same could be said of all quests for meaning.
posted by Shit Parade at 9:36 AM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


>Trying to make sense of the bible is like looking for faces in the wallpaper.

Perhaps the same could be said of all religions.


Especially Zen Buddhism, although you are not looking for faces or "trying to make sense." But you are staring at a wall.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:37 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Trying to make sense of the bible is like looking for faces in the wallpaper.

Perhaps the same could be said of all religions.

Perhaps the same could be said of all quests for meaning.


And not just religious meaning (emphasis here on the "perhaps"):
As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries--not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.

- Quine, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism"
posted by DaDaDaDave at 9:41 AM on November 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


Annnnd now I'm getting The Yellow Wallpaper flashbacks. /shudder!

Love that story - wonderfully creepy, feeling like a Japanese horror movie a la The Grudge but published in 1892.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:41 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Perhaps the same could be said of all religions.

Enough of this talk.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:43 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Trying to make sense of the bible is like looking for faces in the wallpaper.

Perhaps the same could be said of all religions.

Perhaps the same could be said of all quests for meaning.


Perhaps the same could be said of all wallpaper.
Wait, what were we talking about again?
posted by charred husk at 9:45 AM on November 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


I swear I remember reading somewhere that Lewis claimed the book was not intended as a Christian allegory.

He's using a very strict definition of allegory that describes things like Everyman and Pilgrim's Progress. In an allegory (by that definition), the characters represent abstract concepts. If Narnia were an allegory, Edmund would represent, simply, Betrayal, and the book would otherwise have no interest in a more complex inner psychology for any of the characters.
posted by straight at 9:47 AM on November 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


While I favorited your comment because I think the loudmouths sometimes sell the actual experience of religion short, I do have to say that the loudmouths have their place. The reasoning is circular and the premises are highly suspect no matter how long they have been at it. The tragedy of seminary school is not that people ignore these deep arguments, it's that they end up not being very deep.
posted by smidgen at 9:58 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Personally, I find the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree to be particularly embarrassing. Mr Christ comes off as nothing less than a maniacal narcissist. It's like a spoiled movie star yelling, "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM," at a fruit tree that happens to be out of season. He then kills the tree with his magical powers, because if he can't have figs, nobody can.

What a dick.


This is exactly why the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is one of my favorites. It's so petty and such a very human temper tantrum, that I find it bizarrely hilarious and endearing. If Jesus was just another guy, maybe he'd kick the tree and curse to no effect, and his friends would be all "chill out dude, we'll get you a snack from somewhere else," but no! He's the Messiah! So when he's cranky and hungry, he can curse the tree for all eternity and then make his cranky pettiness all deep and meaningful.
posted by yasaman at 10:03 AM on November 9, 2012 [16 favorites]


And yet, despite this, I swear I remember reading somewhere that Lewis claimed the book was not intended as a Christian allegory. It's mere coincidence.

Buh? I thought it wasn't an allegory because Aslan doesn't represent Jesus or stand for Jesus, he just plain is Jesus, simply and directly.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:03 AM on November 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


The tragedy of seminary school is not that people ignore these deep arguments, it's that they end up not being very deep.

I can't speak to any one seminary school, but I do know there are intellectually rigorous Christians who engage various arguments with thoughtful analysis. Alvin Plantinga is a personal favorite, but there are many others.
posted by Shit Parade at 10:05 AM on November 9, 2012


As far as I understand Alvin's main argument from links provided from wikipedia (yeah, I know :-)). It appears to be that belief in god is not irrational because it is a "basic" belief -- like believing other minds exist or that the things you experienced in the past have actually happened. It's not very convincing given I can find loads of circumstantial evidence of the latter two, but not the first. I'm probably missing some basic philosophical point. At best this boils down to an agnostic position -- which is fine -- but doesn't seem terribly deep.
posted by smidgen at 10:40 AM on November 9, 2012


I used to be a Jehovah's Witness. That generations thing has become particularly sticky for them. They had previously decided after one of their millennialist disappointments that the generation Jesus refers to there is the one that witnessed the events of 1914. They would further point to Psalms 90:10 which states that a generation is 70 or 80 years. That was already getting to be a loooong generation when I left in the mid 1990s. I think they've since readjusted that interpretation, but I'm not sure how.

There are a lot of weird problematic passages if you're a Biblical inerrantist. One that I think should be really embarrassing is the adultery test in Numbers. Basically, if you think your wife is cheating on you, you drag her in front of the priest, who cooks up a special potion by writing some magic words on a piece of paper and burning it. The suspected adultress drinks it, and if she's guilty, her "uterus drops". What?

Exodus 4:24-26 is another famous head scratcher.
posted by chrchr at 10:46 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


"At best this boils down to an agnostic position -- which is fine -- but doesn't seem terribly deep.
posted by smidgen at 10:40 AM on November 9 [+] [!]


...yeah, uh, enjoy your pursuits of the "deep", be careful of mirrors.
posted by Shit Parade at 10:53 AM on November 9, 2012


Is he a relative or somethng?
posted by smidgen at 10:56 AM on November 9, 2012


Of course it was a prophecy about the temple, which was easy for him to make, since its a fictional scene that was written after the temple fell.
posted by empath at 11:01 AM on November 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


if she's guilty, her "uterus drops"

Man, dubstep is just getting out there now.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:09 AM on November 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


Man will never prove God exists, but neither will man prove He doesn't.

Every day, I am free to choose to live by either belief, but no matter which path I take, it is good to try to live in peace with those who have chosen differently that day.
posted by Debaser626 at 11:10 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


and if she's guilty, her "uterus drops".

This is really clever. Uteruses take a looooong time to drop, by which time the man has forgotten what he was mad about or has died.
posted by Mister_A at 11:13 AM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


@chrchr I think the adultery test makes sense. It is specifically for when a husband becomes jealous for literally no reason at all with no evidence of any kind. He can either go on being jealous and mistreating his wife for years, or he can go to the priests and have a definitive answer right away, and he can stop being jealous for no reason.

The alternative, considering the context and the times, does not look good for the woman. This law is basically an anti-abuse law, in its own clever way.
posted by brenton at 11:14 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


"There are a lot of weird problematic passages . . ."

A few of which led my dad to believe- to his last breath- that he was going to heaven in a flying saucer. I kid you not. He was technically inclined but also religious. His integration of beliefs led him to his particular conclusion about the afterlife. And he was perfectly happy and comfortable with it. He wasn't a kook- just someone who used one set of tools to solve problems caused by a different set of tools. Like any good theologian.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 11:15 AM on November 9, 2012


I dunno, the part where Noah gets wasted and passes out naked, then his son walks in on him--as Funnybot would say, "Awkward."
posted by Zerowensboring at 11:19 AM on November 9, 2012


I can't believe it took me this long to remember, but the most mindblowing meditation on this particular biblical passage is, of course, Philip K. Dick's How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later. He was the good kind of mystic, obviously.
posted by Kattullus at 11:19 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


OK, my exmple of Lot and his daughters may not have been the best one for various reasons - though I've enjoyed the responses above. My point was really just that there's much in the Bible that is contradictory, immoral and downright absurd. And yes, often embarrassing....
posted by iotic at 12:08 PM on November 9


My Baptist minister from my youth would have responded, "Just like humanity, in other words?"

He was big on that--that the violent, shocking Old Testament stories were not there because they were made up some great moral and/or ethical and/or rational standards of behavior for people reading them centuries later. He said that they were there because there was nothing new under the sun, and to show us that humanity was, and had always been "contradictory, immoral and downright absurd". That even the best of us were capable of great cruelty, of justifying horrible acts in the name of God, of being two-faced, of lying, of deliberate, considered harm to others. Those stories serve to the modern Christian, he believed with all conviction, as warnings not just to those who ignore God's word, but also those who heed it too deeply and think their status as God's children confers immunity to sin upon them.

I think he was on to something, myself.
posted by magstheaxe at 11:23 AM on November 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


SOCRATES: Don't you know that all gods and humans hate a true lie, if one may call it that?
ADEIMANTUS: What do you mean?
SOCRATES: I mean that no one intentionally wants to lie about the most important things to what is most important in himself. On the contrary, he fears to hold a lie there more than anything.
ADEIMANTUS: I still don't understand.
SOCRATES: That is because you think I am saying something deep.
I simply mean that to lie and to have lied to the soul about the things that are, and to be ignorant, and to have and hold a lie there, is what everyone would least of all accept; indeed, they especially hate it there.
ADEIMANTUS: They certainly do.
I'm not sure I totally get what people mean when they say an argument is or is not "deep." Most of the time, "deep" seems like either a euphemism for "hard to understand" or a perpetually receding horizon that you can criticize your opponent for not reaching. I'm reminded of the kind of pointless exchange you used to see a lot of in the heyday of "the new atheism":

A: Name one great thinker who was a Christian.
B: St. Augustine.
A: Not great enough. Name one great thinker who was a Christian.
B: Immanuel Kant.
A: Not great enough. Name one great thinker who was a Christian.
B: Isaac Newton.
A: His important work had nothing to do with his Christianity. Name one...

I really don't know why so many of my fellow atheists find it so hard to admit that there have been plenty of extremely formidable Christian thinkers whose ideas might be of interest, philosophically, historically or otherwise, even to people who think the basic tenets of Christianity are obviously false.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 11:24 AM on November 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


The tragedy of seminary school

It's just "seminary". But this would be a wonderful title for a play.
posted by amorphatist at 11:24 AM on November 9, 2012


In defense of Lewis - for whom I have no great love - he was acting as an apologist, and hence writing for the so-called "common man."

I have never studied him very deeply, but you can't knock a man based on a product designed to appeal to those who have never studied the same subjects.
posted by digitalprimate at 11:25 AM on November 9, 2012


My Baptist minister from my youth would have responded, "Just like humanity, in other words?"

I think the Bible is fascinating, great, great book as a book written by and about humans, so I think that I totally agree with your Baptist minister about that. These Biblical oddities are interesting and revealing, seen in that light. However they are and should be problematic to people who want the Bible to be the inerrant, inspired word of God.

I get brenton's defense of the adultery test:

The alternative, considering the context and the times, does not look good for the woman.


But if we're gonna say the Bible is the literal, inspired, inerrant word of God, shouldn't we expect rather more than, "not as bad as the alternative, considering the times"?
posted by chrchr at 11:34 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I much prefer the rational, religious persons to either.

Please give me an example of a rational religious person. All the religious people I have known beg the question--i.e., they proceed from the assumption that God exists. You can't have a rational argument with someone who begins with an illogical assumption that dismisses opposing views. It's like having a rational discussion with a used car salesman about whether or not you need a car. If you want to be religious or spiritual, that's wonderful. Just don't pretend that you are using logic.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:34 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is exactly why the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is one of my favorites....
posted by yasaman at 1:03 PM on November 9


Oh, me too! If you haven't already, you should read the stories about Jesus as a kid in some of the "lost books" of the Bible. Jesus is all, "Oh, hey, you messed with my fish pool?" withers hand. Young Jesus was a real jerk, according to those books.
posted by magstheaxe at 11:39 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Please give me an example of a rational religious person.

I suspect this is a true Scotsman set-up for who is "truly rational" or "truly religious", but a few examples that immediately come to mind are (and please note that not all are Christian):

* al-Khwarizmi
* al-Zarqali
* Hunayn ibn Ishaq
* Roger Bacon
* William of Ockham (the irony that a Catholic friar is associated with this favorite logical device of the atheist, although the concept also appeared in Aquinas' Summa Theologica)
* Max Planck
posted by Tanizaki at 11:51 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Agreed. But the daughter's conduct isn't why the story's embarrassing. It's embarrassing because "In the space of a day, they'd been offered up for rape, warned to get out of town fast, fled what was surely a horrific scene of death and destruction, lost their fiances and their mother to the destruction, and then abandoned by the angels with no explanations or instructions."
posted by facetious at 12:25 PM on November 9

Perhaps, but those weren't the verses iotic was quoting. :)
posted by magstheaxe at 11:54 AM on November 9, 2012


Ahhh, theology, the pessimistic older cousin of exobiology. At least the latter has a whole universe to speculate about, while the former is stuck on one minor planet in an insignificant system in the back-end of an utterly unremarkable galaxy way out in the middle of nowhere.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:16 PM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I totally get what people mean when they say an argument is or is not "deep."
It means that the argument is nothing better than someone like myself or a random bozo on the street could come up with in 10 minutes. This isn't like the modern art argument -- there is no context to evaluate. Literally, I could go out on the street and ask a random selection of people and I would get the agnostic argument a good percentage of the time -- with the same possibly correct justification -- that it is a basic belief that cannot require evidence... either you buy it or you don't. That could be true, but it's *not* particularly insightful (or "deep") unless you want your point of view validated.
A: Name one great thinker who was a Christian.
Asking for insight is not the same as this. There is a lot to religious thought that has influenced great thinkers on other topics indirectly and otherwise -- how could it not?. I can easily accept the Newton was christian, and that certainly affected how he thought of the "laws" of the universe, and that he believed certain untruths because of that too. And most definitely the fact that there *do* seem to be laws of the universe means something.

(But I'd argue that that this may not even be religious thought -- more like ordinary human cognition co-opted by tradition. As if even a non-religious child wouldn't presuppose that the world might work like a designed mechanism -- understanding cause and effect being kind of crucial to human survival and all).

Anyway. if a decorated theologian's best effort comes up with the statement that a belief in a deity is just as rationally unsupported (in a highly binary way) as belief in the past existing, well, I think I can take issue with the fact that it is somewhat... trivial.

...And, now that WA-502 has passed, we can make progress on many theological issues.
posted by smidgen at 12:18 PM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy, Mars Saxman, actually.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:24 PM on November 9, 2012


Buh? I thought it wasn't an allegory because Aslan doesn't represent Jesus or stand for Jesus, he just plain is Jesus, simply and directly.

Yeah, Lewis's explanation is that inasmuch as Christ is God incarnate on Earth in a way that makes sense to us, Aslan is that same God incarnate in Narnia in a way that makes sense to Narnians.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:24 PM on November 9, 2012


I knew those words sounded familiar as I was writing them, Apocryphon...
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:35 PM on November 9, 2012


I think there's some rather more embarrassing verses in the Bible. How about Genesis 19:34 where Lot's daughters are getting him drunk and screwing him:
And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.

Leviticus, having a lot to say about sex and sex partners, actually says nothing about a father having sex with his daughter, but prohibits sex with his granddaughter. Genetically speaking, a daughter has 50% of her father genes but but her daughter (fathered by her father) will have 75% of his genes making results of a cross between grandfather and granddaughter more likely to have genetic defects.

If that granddaughter was not fathered by grandpa the risks are similar to a cross between brother and sister, a bit less deleterious than father:daughter cross. Leviticus makes no sense genetically speaking.
posted by francesca too at 12:45 PM on November 9, 2012


Metafilter: irrigorous religious logisticians.
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:48 PM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyway. if a decorated theologian's best effort comes up with the statement that a belief in a deity is just as rationally unsupported (in a highly binary way) as belief in the past existing, well, I think I can take issue with the fact that it is somewhat... trivial.

A lot of academic work seems trivial on the surface. Plantinga is not trying to present all or even the most compelling reasons he believes that God exists. He's simply providing a (successful, I think) response to the claim that belief in God is irrational.
posted by straight at 1:07 PM on November 9, 2012


I'm fascinated by unflattering accounts in scripture because, as C.S. Lewis points out, they give us a reason to anchor the account in history. It would be as if you were reading a propaganda piece and a portion of the text deviated and revealed some self awareness of the propaganda machine itself. It feels like an unscripted and unplanned commentary from a politician or PR firm.
posted by dgran at 1:35 PM on November 9, 2012


Few things are funnier than watching the desperate manoeuvring of the religious apologist as s/he tries to make the patently incredible credible, the clearly disreputable reputable, and the dazzlingly unreasonable reasonable. Although fires in orphanages must run it a close second.

The Bible holds up a mirror to humanity
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies


That's certainly one way of putting it.
posted by Decani at 1:37 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm fascinated by unflattering accounts in scripture because, as C.S. Lewis points out, they give us a reason to anchor the account in history.

Not that I'm saying that this applies to the case under consideration, but inserting miscellaneous truthons into a fabrication can make it seem more plausible.
posted by amorphatist at 2:30 PM on November 9, 2012


Not that I'm saying that this applies to the case under consideration, but inserting miscellaneous truthons into a fabrication can make it seem more plausible.

One of Lewis's more interesting claims is that that sort of novelistic verisimilitude is a modern invention that we don't have any examples of in literature from the era the Gospels were written. (He points to the detail about Jesus writing in the sand when he was asked to decide the fate of the woman caught in adultery as an example.) I'd love to see a classics scholar address or rebut that claim.
posted by straight at 2:47 PM on November 9, 2012


Not so.

"The Greek novel as a genre began in the first century CE".
posted by chrchr at 2:54 PM on November 9, 2012


A: Not great enough. Name one great thinker who was a Christian.
B: Isaac Newton.
A: His important work had nothing to do with his Christianity. Name one...



au contraire mon frere.
posted by spock at 5:15 PM on November 9, 2012


I've spent some time around Jesuits and people who studied in the Jesuit tradition...

It is TOUGH to argue with a Jesuit.
Them's some rigorous thinkers.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:51 PM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


In defense of Lewis - for whom I have no great love - he was acting as an apologist, and hence writing for the so-called "common man."

I have never studied him very deeply, but you can't knock a man based on a product designed to appeal to those who have never studied the same subjects.


But surely that means either he was wilfully lying by dumbing down theology for the ignorant, or he was a blue-arsed baboon?
posted by Sparx at 9:10 PM on November 9, 2012


I'm fascinated by unflattering accounts in scripture because, as C.S. Lewis points out, they give us a reason to anchor the account in history. It would be as if you were reading a propaganda piece and a portion of the text deviated and revealed some self awareness of the propaganda machine itself. It feels like an unscripted and unplanned commentary from a politician or PR firm.

But we have to bear in mind that this is a body of propaganda written, adapted and edited by a variety of people over a period of decades. The unflattering accounts anchor the text in history, certainly, but not necessarily the history that Lewis thinks they do.
posted by howfar at 6:10 AM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


surely that means either he was wilfully lying by dumbing down theology for the ignorant, or he was a blue-arsed baboon?

In the chapter 'Christian Apologetics' in God in the Dock, Lewis writes the following about his motivation:

"You must translate every bit of your Theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning."
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 4:23 PM on November 10, 2012


But surely that means either he was wilfully lying by dumbing down theology for the ignorant, or he was a blue-arsed baboon?

Try explaining the citric acid cycle to a high school biology class without telling any lies or half-truths.
posted by straight at 4:40 PM on November 10, 2012


Whaaaaa?

When you explain the Krebs cycle to high school classes, you need to use metaphor that maybe doesn't *quite* work, and certainly you simplify and leave things out, but you sure as heck don't lie or tell half-truths!
posted by BlueHorse at 2:48 AM on November 11, 2012


The Bible holds up a mirror to humanity, and sometimes, like Lot's daughters, we certainly do not like what we see.

I'm with Alia here. Any work of fantasy holds up a mirror to the creators. And a work of fantasy that has been invested in by so many people and that starts with the idea of an all-powerful being is going to show a lot of the darker side of humanity.

I've spent some time around Jesuits and people who studied in the Jesuit tradition, and one thing that it made me appreciate as an atheist -- and that I think a lot of other atheists could benefit from -- is realizing that there are literally zero arguments that you can casually come up with, which somebody hasn't already tried, and which the Christian intellectual tradition hasn't found some way to either route around, shrug off, or incorporate in some non-destructive way.

Or spend reams and reams of ink trying to square the circle as for Theodicy/the problem of evil.

And as for Aslan? He's a jerk. (Warning Long, multi-post deconstruction linked - do not read without time to kill).
posted by Francis at 5:06 AM on November 11, 2012


Francis, you need to know that I do not consider the Bible a work of fantasy. For the past 32 years as a born again Christian believer I have found it to be exactly what it says it is.


It's not always an easy book to understand-and it has to be taken as a whole. It isn't a rulebook exactly.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:53 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem with taking the Bible as a whole is that you then run up against the myriad internal contradictions you'd expect in any text of its complex provenance. Which is fine as long as you're not an inerrantist, but if you are, is one reason why we have the whole boiling mess of apologetics in the first place.
posted by howfar at 7:24 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ah, but the seeming contradictions...aren't really. God's not a human (well, Jesus is fully God and fully man but I think you get what I am saying) and He has to put things in human terms that are so way above our paygrade that it isn't funny. And if I get stuck on something, I just ask Him ;-)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:39 PM on November 11, 2012


Please give me an example of a rational religious person. All the religious people I have known beg the question--i.e., they proceed from the assumption that God exists.

While I am an atheist, I've met people who are both religious and appear, insofar as I can tell, to be pretty rational. You can acknowledge the unfalsifiability of "God exists" and make a conscious decision to believe in it anyway, if it makes you happier to do so than not.

I can't find much to argue with this, because as a materialist I make a similar decision on an ongoing basis to reject solipsism, despite it being a simpler metaphysics than materialism and there being no testable difference between the two. I cannot experimentally verify that the material universe exists outside of my own head, or will continue after I die, or isn't a simulation in which I am the only actual participant, etc., but I choose to do so because otherwise existence becomes a bit pointless.

That is where I get off that particular train of thought, but it's not hard to appreciate that there are others for whom materialism is as philosophically unsatisfying as solipsism is for me, and therefore continue on to accept the existence of a deity. If you stop at only positing the existence of a "celestial watchmaker," and not an intercessory / messin'-with-the-mortals kind of god(s), then there is no incompatibility with materialism on a day-to-day basis. You get the comfort of believing in god at zero real-world (philosophical or otherwise) cost.

To get from there to most actual real-world religions is admittedly more of a stretch (particularly the ones that posit a god with the ability and interest to actually intercede on your behalf if you ask hard enough), and that's where I think you start to separate the rationalists from the rest of the pack. However, the fundamental belief in a deity, in the abstract, doesn't seem to involve any contradictions, and that's a fairly good working definition of a rational philosophy to me.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:51 PM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Bible holds up a mirror to humanity

Sure. Any great book does. If there are reasons that the Christian Bible is special as something other than a historical document, that it holds up a mirror to humanity isn't one of them, I don't think.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:04 PM on November 11, 2012


I've spent some time around Jesuits and people who studied in the Jesuit tradition, and one thing that it made me appreciate as an atheist -- and that I think a lot of other atheists could benefit from -- is realizing that there are literally zero arguments that you can casually come up with, which somebody hasn't already tried, and which the Christian intellectual tradition hasn't found some way to either route around, shrug off, or incorporate in some non-destructive way.

I think this assumes that atheism is an argument against Christianity (or against any other religion for that matter).
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:04 PM on November 11, 2012


I think this assumes that atheism is an argument against Christianity

Only in the sense that a fair number of self-identified atheists feel the need to do that, and/or (more subtly and perhaps perniciously) assume that atheism is a self-evident conclusion that one necessarily arrives at by thinking harder about the issue than religious people have.

However, that's certainly a reversible criticism.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:11 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


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